Don't 'fix' a GAB that isn't broken

By Nancy Kaplan


State government agencies exist to do the day-to-day work of governance. All are important to some so-called "special interest groups." But none is more important to the largest interest group of all — current and potential voters in Wisconsin — than the Government Accountability Board. In 2007, with an overwhelmingly bipartisan vote, the state Legislature gave the gift of GAB to the people of Wisconsin. But now the Republicans want to renege.

GAB is a gift because it is a recognized national model for nonpartisan regulation of laws governing elections, campaigns and lobbying. Its six members are former state judges serving part-time, staggered, six-year terms. They are appointed by the governor. The governor nominates a judge to fill a vacancy from a roster of judges previously selected by a panel of Wisconsin Court of Appeals judges; and the nominee must be confirmed by the state Senate. Four members of the current board were appointed by Gov. Scott Walker. The agency provides key safeguards against corruption in government at all levels. 

All citizens of Wisconsin — Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal — should be concerned about reverting to the status quo ante 2007. Then, GAB's responsibilities were divided between a state Ethics Board and a state Elections Board. GAB became necessary because its predecessors were not able to prevent the legislative caucus scandal of 2001-2002, the most serious political scandal to rock Wisconsin in a century.

So there are lots of good political reasons for the people of Wisconsin to oppose scrapping GAB. But there are serious practical reasons as well. The current chair of GAB, Judge Gerald C. Nichol, has written an open letter to the leaders of the state Senate and Assembly laying out why it would be wrong to make changes at this critical point in the election cycle. In that letter, he says:

"[GAB supports] Wisconsin's 1,853 municipal clerks and 72 county clerks. In addition, the elections staff is responsible for reviewing nomination papers for 43 judicial races in the spring election and 195 congressional, legislative and district attorney races in the general election.

"Beyond those normal functions, 2016 will be the first year of full statewide use of photo ID, and clerks and election workers need support and training to ensure that the law is implemented correctly. In addition, our elections and IT staff are finishing work on a major upgrade to the Statewide Voter Registration System, which will roll out to clerks in early 2016 and will require significant training and support efforts.... Finally, I understand legislators are working on a major overhaul of campaign finance laws to comply with recent court rulings, which may require significant changes to the Campaign Finance Information System, manuals and training for campaign committee treasurers."

Nichol points out that the "Legislature has not availed itself of the statutory remedy for resolving tensions that have arisen because Republicans have, in Nichol's words, "unfairly maligned" the board's professional staff as "partisan:"

"During the course of the past year there has been extended media coverage of the Legislature's dissatisfaction with the Government Accountability Board," he writes. "By law, the Legislature has the unique opportunity to provide advice and direction to the agency through the Joint Legislative Committee on Organization. Wis. Stat. § 5.05(5f). In eight plus years, the Legislature and the Board have not opened this channel of communication."

In the last 12 months, accusations have twice been investigated by the Legislative Audit Bureau. Both reports clear GAB of any malfeasance, partisanship or wrongdoing. In light of the disruptions Nichol describes and with the results of the Legislative Audit Bureau's investigations now in hand, Wisconsin's legislators will be doing all citizens of the state an enormous disservice if they nevertheless act out of partisan pique and try to "fix" an agency that isn't broken.

Read the original op-ed at JSOnline.

Be sure to sign the petition at Grassroots Northshore.

Nancy Kaplan


Retired Professor of Human-Computer Interaction, news junky, progressive